Continuing resolutions put agencies on edge
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"This is no way to run an operation of any size." Steve Charles
It's been a decade since Congress has provided all agencies with operating budgets by the beginning of the fiscal year. Congress requires program managers to make plans almost two years in advance but forces them to operate under the prior year's budgets based on those two-year-old plans. This is no way to run an operation of any size.
Industry knows that to achieve financial goals, every element of a project must move forward on time, and any schedule slippage jeopardizes desired outcomes. Running a government program is no different.
Unfortunately, Congress seems incapable of delivering the first step in the accountability chain: a funded budget in the form of an appropriations bill.
This year, Congress did not pass a final appropriation until Feb. 15, which included a provision requiring agencies to submit spending plans "at a level of detail below the account level" for the money it appropriated 4 1/2 months late. What is Congress doing with those plans? Have they been approved? Do agencies have the authority to spend?
Those plans were due March 15, but I can only find one of them to date, the Education Department's.
If this plan is any indication of what is going on this year across the departments, it should be cited as Exhibit A of top-down fiscal mismanagement.
By not meeting the Oct. 1 deadline, Congress is funding 47 activities that had been proposed to expire in 2007 and simultaneously preventing the start of 10 activities that were planned for 2007. In dollar terms, $8.4 billion is being spent for activities that should have ended this year, and $1.9 billion is not being spent for activities that were planned to begin. How is one to manage in this environment? Who is accountable for what?
Imagine yourself as a government program manager. Back in spring 2005, you submitted a business case for your 2007 plan. You defended your plan throughout the fall during the Office of Management and Budget pass-back process. In early 2006, you again defended your plan during the budget and appropriation debates only to be told by Congress Oct. 1 that you would continue to operate as you had in fiscal 2006.
Congress strung you along through its Thanksgiving and Christmas breaks with continuing resolutions through Feb. 15, when you got authority to operate under your 2006 budget ? with some exceptions ? through September while being asked for updated spending plans due March 15. Half of the year is gone, and you are formulating annual spending plans for the same people who didn't make their Oct. 1 deadline.
How are agencies handling this chaos? We're learning the answer to this question day-by-day, agency-by-agency. Each seems to have a different interpretation of what the joint resolution means for them and their procurement authority.
What is clear is that there is basically the same amount of money, but agencies have less time than usual to obligate it. One can argue that they have more discretion this year for the following reasons:
- Congressional earmarks were eliminated, but the money remained, giving agencies more money to spend as they choose.
- With all this chaos, it will be difficult for Congress to determine whether an agency spent their money in ways that didn't meet the intent of their appropriations.
- There may be less scrutiny on how agencies divide funds between operations and capital costs this year because the budget documents specifying such amounts don't seem to exist yet.
Congress will always have the power of the purse, but shouldn't Congress be held accountable for the extra costs incurred when it prevents agencies from implementing those plans they painstakingly create, defend and are ultimately measured on?
Perhaps it's time for the Government Accountability Office to report on the true costs of Congress' continuing-resolution habit.Steve Charles is co-founder of immixGroup Inc., a government business consulting firm in McLean, Va. E-mail him at steve_charles@